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Course by W&L's Kirk Wins Award from Humane Society

Athena Kirk, Mellon Junior Faculty Fellow in the classics department at Washington and Lee University, has received the 2012 Distinguished New Course award from the Humane Society of the United States and the Animals and Society Institute for her seminar “The Ancient Animal World,” which she taught in Fall 2012.

The annual award recognizes college and university classes that explore the relationships between animals and people. Criteria considered included depth and rigor within the topic, impact on the study of animals and society and originality of approach. Kirk shares the award with a course at Lund University, Sweden. She taught the seminar in Fall 2012.

While much study of human-animal relationships focuses on modern society, Kirk’s course conducted a comparative study of animals in ancient literature and philosophy and our relationships with animals in contemporary fiction and theory.

“It was a melding of the ancient and the modern,” said Kirk. “Students were really interested to learn that a lot of scholars feel that how we treat animals today is rooted in the Stoics—a group of philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome—who thought that because animals don’t have reason and speech we don’t have to treat them in an ethical way. We can do whatever we want with them. That idea continued through the Christian era, with people thinking it was fine to use animals for work and food.”

Kirk aimed to introduce students to the completely different mindset of the ancient world and the different ways in which people interacted with animals. For example, when making a sacrifice, the people would adorn a cow and bring it to a holy place to be revered, and although they were about to slit its throat they put measures in place to prevent the cow from knowing what was happening.

“That’s very different from the cold and distant relationship we tend to have with the animals we eat,” noted Kirk. “It led to a conversation about factory farming today and our motivations for the ways in which we either consume animals or treat them before we consume them.”

Students also examined the strange ideas about animals in the ancient world and the superstitious beliefs about the intelligence and powers of certain animals.

For example, in “On the Nature of Animals,” Aelian wrote: “The fly is the most daring of creatures but it cannot swim. When it falls into water it drowns but if you pick the fly’s body from the water, sprinkle it with ashes and set it in a sunny spot the fly will come back to life.”

Among the ancient texts studied was Euripides’ “Cyclops” where goat-like men called satyrs occupy a space between the animal world and the human world. “I think it was interesting to see that side of ancient dealings with animals,” said Kirk “and that there wasn’t such a clear distinction for them between what is human and what is not human.”

In comparing animals in ancient and modern fiction, students read Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” alongside Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” a Roman novel about a man who accidentally turns into a donkey and realizes some of the pains of a beast of burden. “Black Beauty” traces a horse’s life through its youth and working life and highlighted the condition of working horses in the Victorian era, including the use of the painful checkrein to keep horses’ heads held high in a lofty manner.

“This was the first time I taught the course,” said Kirk. “One of the things I learned was how difficult it is to tease out one’s own opinions and feelings about human and animal relationships through reading all this material. My views about animal ethics were not completely set in stone before I began, and I didn’t teach the course with any particular agenda in mind. But by the end we all realized how complex this subject is and that we really struggle with our relationships with animals. It became clear to all of us that we can be much more careful with animals and that there are some simple ways in which we can treat them better.”

In order to consider the ethics of animal captivity and habitat displacement, Kirk organized a visit to the Virginia Safari Park, funded by a grant from W&L’s Dean of the College, Suzanne Keen. Kirk described the trip as “an odd anthropological experience: it was strange to be characters in this artificial scene and drive up to animals we would never normally have around us.” They also visited a local antique shop to see an ancient Egyptian bronze cat head. Students also conducted “Zoological Observations” in which they had to interact with and then write about a non-human animal and its behaviors.

The Humane Society award consists of $750, which Kirk hopes to use toward further student involvement with the human-animal community around Washington and Lee, with a possible formal program of study with the Rockbridge County SPCA, zoos, animal preserves and farms in the area.

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